Opposition Day — [15th Allotted Day] — Sure Start Children’s Centres

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:40 pm on 27th April 2011.

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Photo of Sharon Hodgson Sharon Hodgson Shadow Minister (Education) 3:40 pm, 27th April 2011

You have already spoken, thank you.

We announced the subject of this Opposition day debate last week, just before the bank holiday weekend. The fact that an extraordinary meeting was called over a bank holiday weekend and hastily arranged for the other side of the weekend is very telling. I am sure that the tens of thousands of parents in Hampshire who signed the two petitions were happy when they heard the news, as we were when we heard it today. However, the news is bitter-sweet. Although we are told that no centres will close, they face a 35% budget cut: going from £17 million to £11 million is a £6 million cut, which is huge. A £6 million cut is much more than just the streamlining of services, and parents know that. They use the services, and will notice if they are taken away or diminished. Indeed, on the Facebook page for the Hampshire children’s centres campaign, this is not seen as a U-turn or a great victory. The group is still campaigning, because it is deeply worried about the £6 million cut and the effect it will have on children’s centres. It says that the campaign goes on.

The Secretary of State loves playing to the gallery, so why will he not give the people what they want and say that he will consider bringing back the ring fence? After all, it would be a nice boost for all those Tory and Lib Dem candidates who are struggling on the doorstep. My right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead, who is one of the most knowledgeable people in this area, challenged the non-ring-fencing of this vital area of expenditure and said that the Government should change their attitude to non-ring-fencing. That is strong stuff from a highly respected expert in the area. I hope that the Government pay heed to that.

It is not as if the Secretary of State has not had practice at backing down. In fact, he is probably the most qualified person in the Cabinet when it comes to U-turns, and that Cabinet includes the Deputy Prime Minister. My right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh laid bare at the beginning of the debate the reasons the Secretary of State probably will not back down and support the motion. He repeated the claims of Ministers that Sure Start funding is protected and showed that that simply is not true. There is not enough money to maintain the current network of children’s centres if Ministers expect councils to deliver all the other important programmes that the grant pays for, such as short breaks for disabled children. How can there be enough, when there has been a real-terms cut of 22% in the pot?

If I am wrong, why are centres closing or effectively being mothballed, and why are services being cut? If I am wrong, why would Ministers have a problem with the motion? But I am not wrong: they are, just as they have been wrong on Bookstart, on EMA, on the English baccalaureate and on Building Schools for the Future. They are the most incompetent Department in a shambolic Government, and the worst thing is that children’s lives are at stake.

I know that some Government Members do see the value of Sure Start and recognise the importance of protecting it, and we have heard from some of them today. My plea to those Members is simple: support the motion and show their constituents that they understand the priorities and concerns of ordinary, hard-working families, even if their Front-Bench colleagues do not.